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Toxic mask-ulinity: What COVID-19 tells us about the cult of the ‘manly man’

Today on the Internet I learnt you can buy “manly” face masks on Etsy. One quick search yielded 400 results, each bulging with the obvious hallmarks of masculinity: beards, camo, tree logs.

However, despite the collective efforts of the Etsy marketplace, masks are, apparently, not manly. In a recent paper currently undergoing peer review, scientists from the Universities of Middlesex and Berkeley found that male research participants were less likely to wear a mask than their female counterparts. They found that men tended to associate negative emotions with masks, agreeing that they were “not cool”, even “shameful”.

If this research is accurate, then this begs the question, how has a public health measure become a point of gender expression?

Looking to our world leaders, a bizarre, if expected, answer presents itself. Trump denounced masks as a “political statement” against him, despite members of his own White House Task force recommending their use. Jair Bolsonaro, in a characteristically brash address, proclaimed: “In my particular case, because of my background as an athlete, I wouldn’t need to worry if I was infected by the virus. I wouldn’t feel anything, or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold.”

This unwillingness to defer to those who know more than you and the dismissal of a ‘little flu’ that has killed over 670,000 people are all characteristics associated with toxic masculinity. The cult of the ‘manly man’ subscribes to a narrowly defined conception of what it means to be male: independent, individualistic and with an instinctive need to show one’s own strength.

It is interesting then, that Trump has recently made a complete U-turn on his spurious claims surrounding the use of masks.

In an interview with Fox Business, Trump stated he said he “sort of liked” how he looked in a mask. This mask in question was not just any mask. “It was a dark, black mask, and I thought it looked ok. Looked like the Lone Ranger. But, no, I have no problem with that. I think – and if people feel good about it, they should do it.”

In attempting to portray masks as manly, Trump invoked the manliest man of all, the Lone Ranger. Referencing the stock character cements the President as a hero. He works independently from the authorities but always adheres to his own strict code of honour. He is a vigilante, guided by compassion and yet somehow stoic, without emotion. Furthermore, Trump draws upon the Wild West, an image that has long been framed as a barren land of lawlessness – the macho man’s ultimate dream.

Once again, we should take Trump’s exact words with a pinch of salt. He can’t have done too much research on the matter (the Lone Ranger actually wears an eye mask) but his comments nevertheless tell us something about how language is co-opted in order to maintain gender binaries. It is clear that masks are not manly, indeed the study mentioned above highlighted that in places where face coverings are mandatory, there is no distinction in the intention to wear a mask. Despite this, language is used to frame the seemingly apolitical into something that reinforces toxic conceptions of gender expression.

Language forms a part of a network that upholds patriarchal forms of gender expression. This includes our social interactions, our media, our institutions and our history of gender. This is a network that cajoles and bullies its victims, which includes men, women, and those who don’t conform to this binary. 

Upholding this rigid binary is dangerous. Pleck, in The Myth of Masculinity writes that these constructs are so impossible that men will inevitably fall short. The stigmatisation of emotion, for example, finds its outlet in a consistent failure to openly discuss mental health, resulting in higher suicide rates

More recently, the American Psychological Association published new guidelines, underscoring the ways in which the ‘manly man’ conception of gender harms boys and men, across all ages and ethnicities. These guidelines suggested tackling the hyper-heteronormative values which attack men, whilst balancing this with their many privileges in a patriarchal society.

It is clear that there is no single model of masculinity that can fully accommodate the human experience, as felt by those identifying as male. Any deviations from the impossible norm are treated as abnormalities, yet the criteria for becoming ‘masculine’ are arbitrary and elusive in nature, as the gendering of masks show.

Breaking down this harmful binary will be a task that endures beyond COVID-19. Wearing a mask is a good start.

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